Annual Conference Globalization and Literature

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Conference 2019: Tropes of Globalization

27.06.2019 – 29.06.2019

Keynote Speaker: Alexander Beecroft (University of South Carolina)


Textual (re)presentations or (discursive) 'constructions' of globalization cannot avoid operating via linguistic tropes – in literature as well as in other textual modes. The "rhétorique restreinte" (Gérard Genette) in contemporary literary and cultural studies tends to privilege metaphor, applying the term even for tropological relations obviously not based on similarity. As a countermove to this simplification, our conference proposes to revisit the rhetoric tradition in order to develop a more differentiated set of descriptions for the (re)presentations of an earth-encompassing world. Following the insights of Kenneth Burke (in his seminal article on "Four Master Tropes" (1941), better known, but not necessarily more graphic in its adaptation in Hayden White's Metahistory (1973)), these differences do not simply concern technical details, but are loaded with epistemological presuppositions or, in Paul de Man’s paraphrase, aesthetic ideologies.

The following disposition is only a heuristic device, as many tropes tend to be mutually intertwined.

1. The most widespread and most seductive trope in the depiction of the (earth-encompassing) world is, arguably, the synecdoche, particularly in its subcategory of the pars pro toto. It is operative in what Burke calls the "noblest synecdoche", the micro-/macrocosm-relation, but also in the notion of a "Welt im Kleinen" (world in a nutshell). The pars pro toto serves to bridge oppositions, fraught with tension, and to relate very different, only structurally comparable, 'parts' and 'wholes' such as: local vs. global, particular vs. universal, individual vs. general, example vs. rule etc. Typical cases are the 'Dorfgeschichte' (village history or village novel), from Berthold Auerbach's Schwarzwald (1843) to García Márquez' Macondo (1976), or time capsules, which became increasingly popular in the US and Great Britain at the end of the 19th century.

Without ruling out the totum pro parte as a logical inversion of the pars pro toto, it might be even more pertinent to consider the possibility of a pars contra totum: as an a-trope or resistance to tropology, an insistence on the singular (to be distinguished from the individual), something not to be subsumed under any notion of a whole.

2. Contemporary long novels, e.g. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004), Roberto Bolaños 2666 (2004) or Michael Crichton's State of Fear (2004), movies such as Babel (2006) and series such as Sense8 (2015-2018) set out to construct a 'world' via the concatenation of events in sufficiently remote locations, typically dispersed over distinct continents: a device that could be described as metonymical. Although this procedure can be traced back through the (Western) literary tradition – via Thomas Pynchon's Gravity Rainbow (1973) to 'archival novels' like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821) and even to Johann Gottfried Schnabel's Insel Felsenburg (1731) and 'object narratives' from the 18th century – its recent popularity is obviously connected to the master model of globalization as a 'network'. This model must, of course, be interrogated with particular attention to the holes in the alleged whole: How much synecdoche, so to speak, can still, even if perhaps unavoidably, be found within the selected knots of the metonymic concatenation?  

3. The analysis of other tropes could, for example, include:

  • irony: the fourth in the quadripartite set of Pierre Ramus, as adapted and made operative by Burke (along with metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche). Typical example: the inversion of 'North' and 'South' in Abdourahman A. Waberi's Aux États Unis d'Afrique (2006).
  • catachresis (not in the sense of a mixed metaphor or misused figure of speech, but in the sense of an indispensable, 'original' metaphor, as in 'table-leg'). E.g.: the very concept (if it is one) of 'globalization', as introduced in the late 20th century.
  • synonym: The rhetoric tradition is wise enough to classify synonyms as tropes, thereby acknowledging that any synonym always also 'turns' (trepein) – if not the denotation ['Bedeutung', using Gottlob Frege's terms], then at least – the connotation ['Sinn'] of a word when it is paraphrased by its synonym. E.g.: intentional cases like the French substitution of globalisation by mondialisation; less intentional cases like the present tendency in discourses on globalization to not distinguish world and earth.
  • allegory: a notorious borderline case between tropes and figures, which therefore cannot entirely be excluded – even though the conference is deliberately not entitled 'figures of globalization'
  • symbol (in the sense of a Goethean/Coleridgean aesthetic ideology forged around 1800): as a trope denying its own status as a trope, and therefore seductively used as a trope for 'globalization' denying its status as something constructed

4. Whilst in aspects 1-3 the 'of' between 'tropes' and 'globalization' is, somewhat arbitrarily, taken for granted as designating tropes for globalization, as a tenor, using I.A. Richards' vocabulary or 'Bildempfänger, speaking with Harald Weinrich. However, it might also be useful to consider globalization as a vehicle/'Bildspender' of a trope for something else.